Friday, May 25, 2012

Tales from the Long Box: Nobody Panic

Every week Seth goes into his back issue bins, picks out a single issue, story arc, or creative run, pours through it and then writes about it. He calls it Tales from the Long Box. Though old and now either retconned out of existence or made irrelevant by the latest event, these books still share something in common... they're bagged, boarded, and a part of comics history.

Nobody Panic

I recently saw a tweet from a rather prolific comic writer make mention of the fact that the comics industry has a general negative attitude about nearly everything. In other words the glass is always half empty for the average fan, and even creator. This has become only more prevalent as sales have slipped below those wild and crazy days of the mid-90's when books regularly sold in the half million range and a cancelled book was selling in excess of 80-100 K. It's completely understandable why everyone would freak out, shutter their windows, close up shop and move on to other forms of entertainment.

Simmer down though. This isn't as confined to comic books as you might like to think. It doesn't take much research to see that sales have been in free fall for ALL forms of print publication for years now. I can speak to this firsthand. As a former freelance journalist (it makes me feel more legitimate to type that instead of simply "writer") for a local newspaper I saw the writing staff plummet from twenty plus to under ten in the two years I wrote for them. Meanwhile, some of the premier sellers of the printed word are going belly up or staggering to bankruptcy. Borders being the most recent, and largest example of this.

It may seem an odd way of encouraging everyone to keep the faith by pointing out that the other dams holding back the waves of annihilation are also collapsing, but if Scholastic or Random House are having trouble then, yes, DC and Marvel are simply following the trend. It's only natural if everyone in the written-word industry is suffering then comics should be too. A few things to keep in mind, before you raise the white flag and start selling off your long boxes or throw away that amazing comic script you just wrote.

This is all cyclical. At one point  the literary world faced a similar situation. People couldn't afford books and they certainly couldn't afford the sizable tomes that were found on the odd book store shelves. What happened was a guy named Walt Whitman started publishing his poetry in handsome little collections, easily purchased for a low price. He paid for the publishing himself. He was joined by other poets and short-fiction writers. People could afford to pick up a dirt-cheap book of poetry or a short story. Publishers started punching out little poetry collections by the bus (or I suppose horse drawn cart) load and the industry was saved.

We're seeing something similar today with ComiXology and Kindle. All sorts of works are being published on digital platforms for 99 cents and finding an audience. An audience who might not be willing to pay $3.99 for a comic in a shop but sure are willing to buy that same comic months later for 99 cents. Last year Amanda Hocking, a 26 year old girl who decided to self-publish her books through digital avenues like kindle made millions. She priced them around .99 cents, collected 70% of the revenue made from them and they sold... they sold hundreds of thousands of copies. She became the Whitman or name-your-favorite-1800's-poet of the 21st century.

Am I saying that digital is the salvation of the entire comics industry? Maybe. Its certainly the most obvious and accessible salvation at any rate.

So the other thing is genre within comics. It's a constant complaint that only superhero comics sell. Well, if this were true the whole industry would still be looked upon as a laughing stock. A childish medium full of "funny books" and "capes and tights". It's not. Every year we see more and more graphic novels and comic collections awarded "legitimate" awards and hitting the NYT best seller list. We see Hollywood movies based, not only on the capes and tights books, but on the quieter, lesser known works as well. There are, in fact, comics publishers who do really well for themselves with the specific genre they've singled out as their own. Dark Horse tends to skew toward dark, sci-fi and fantasy. Oni Press handles small-scale character-based books. This is similar to what Osprey has done in the literary world by singling out Military History and only publishing books that fall into that category. They've made a name for themselves with military history buffs and those people are more willing to buy an Osprey book about, say, the Korean War than the odd Simon & Schuster book on the same subject.

The best comics example I can think of is how I'm more prone to buy a book about a girl who also happens to be a zombie solving mysteries with her ghostly best friend from someone like Vertigo than I would be from, say IDW. Vertigo has a long, storied history of handling this sort of out-there material where someone like IDW publishes really good licensed books. This isn't to say that IDW can't publish a great small-scale mystery/horror book, I'm just more likely to pick it up if I see Vertigo's name on it. Genre within comics are varied and though the highest selling happens to be superhero it doesn't mean there isn't plenty of other types of stories to read. It's also worth noting that, while superhero books are the industry's bread and butter, the biggest success story in comics of late is Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead. A black and white book about characters living in a zombie apocalypse.

Again, it's all cyclical. Comics have seen worse times, financially, and they'll see better some time soon. The industry will evolve and change and overcome the current financial climate to find a new, broader audience. Guys like Mark Waid are going out of their way to see that this happens. Waid's recent foray into the digital realm has made him one of the closest examples the comics industry has to a forward thinker like Walt Whitman, or, I suppose, Amanda Hocking. He's utilizing the medium in new, exciting ways and doing so through uncommon avenues such as launching free comics onto his site

Yes, it's true, times are tough but  we're tougher than the times. Publishing is tougher than the times. Comics are tougher than the times. Panic is the easy reaction and one that offers no solutions.

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